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A Times Editorial

Long-haul, costly recovery for ecology


The lapses in safety, training, equipment and regulation that contributed to last year's BP oil disaster are well known. But it will take years or decades to fully measure the ecological damage from 206 million gallons of oil that flooded into the Gulf of Mexico. The federal and gulf state governments need to ensure that BP pays all cleanup and restoration costs. And Congress should support measures that would give the oil industry more incentives to try harder to prevent accidents and coastal communities more protection after one occurs.

The photographs of birds and turtles struggling to survive the oily slime were heartbreaking. But scientists are only now getting a better picture of the lasting damage to gulf fisheries, wildlife and coastal ecosystems. Louisiana's oyster crop was hit hard. So were the marshes that filter pollution and ease flooding in low-lying areas. Scientists are worried that the oil might cause long-term damage to sea turtle populations and bird rookeries. They are investigating whether the spill is responsible for the large number of dead dolphins that are washing up on the gulf beaches. Researchers also are exploring how the well blowout nearly a mile beneath the surface affected coral and a range of organisms near the sea floor that play an essential role in the gulf's complex food chain.

The federal government is writing a comprehensive report on the extent of the ecological damage, and BP has committed $500 million over 10 years for research into where and how the oil affected the environment. These are good starts that will guide the restoration effort and help determine what BP should pay in damages. The process also is an opportunity for the Obama administration to examine the unprecedented use of subsea chemical dispersants. BP applied 770,000 gallons near its broken wellhead to break up the spill. Federal officials approved the use without knowing its long-term environmental effect, and the government needs a better picture if this option is to stay on the table.

The administration needs to be transparent as it assembles the BP environmental damage assessment. The public needs confidence in the science for the nation to commit to a long-term recovery effort. Officials should bring more coordination to the research being conducted by the federal government, universities and other institutions. BP also needs to ensure its grant money is committed in a timely fashion. The University of South Florida College of Marine Science has played a pivotal role from the start with its exploratory trips to the gulf. It should remain a leader in the research effort along with the Florida Institute of Oceanography, which won a $10 million grant from BP in the initial round. One focus for researchers should be to develop 21st century containment tactics. Boom and skimming vessels do only so much — and both can damage sea grass, vital habitat for wildlife, flood control and storm protection along the gulf.

Congress also should give the oil drilling industry a greater incentive for avoiding accidents in the first place. It should raise the cap on spill damages, now at a ridiculously low $75 million. BP, for comparison's sake, has already put aside $20 billion for damages, and it paid an additional $632 million to the government for the cleanup effort. Congress also should approve legislation by U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, that would dedicate 80 percent of any fines collected from BP under the Clean Water Act toward gulf restoration. It only makes sense that fines for damaging the gulf are earmarked for the water body that was damaged. The state of the gulf may be uncharted territory for a time. The least the nation can do at the outset is see to it that America's worst environmental disaster is met by a recovery of the same order.

Long-haul, costly recovery for ecology 04/17/11 [Last modified: Sunday, April 17, 2011 4:30am]
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